When our Creative Writing Program at UBC began offering a course in Graphic Fiction, I decided that it was about time for me to learn something about it. Several colleagues recommended that I begin by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and that was excellent advice. Then I read a dozen or so Canadian and American graphic novels—enough to become genuinely excited by sequential art. Japanese comics seemed to be on everybody’s mind, so I thought that I should take a quick look at them too. It’s three years later, and I’m still looking—still deeply immersed in the world of manga. Much of what I’ve been reading is shōjo—that is, comics written for girls. That has struck some of my friends and colleagues as a bit odd, so I want to take some time here to try to explain my fascination.
Matt Thorn—now an Associate Professor in Kyoto Seika University’s Faculty of Manga—tells us that he first became fascinated by shōjo manga when he discovered, to his surprise, that Hagio Moto’s Tooma no shinzuo made him cry (Thorn section 9). I had a similar experience reading Mitsuba Takanashi’s Crimson Hero, a series about a topic I would have said held no interest for me whatsoever—girls’ volleyball. I did not merely become misty-eyed. With no warning at all, I was suddenly crying so hard that I had to put the book down. I thought, sometime later, “That’s weird. I’ve been crying over a cartoon,” but that wasn’t right. I’d just experienced the full intensity of a highly evolved and sophisticated art form, one that is unparalleled in its ability to elicit raw powerful emotions from the reader.
Like cinema, manga employs images heavily laden with emotional content that strike us at a deep psychological level below the mediation of words. Like prose writing, manga requires the active participation of a reader who has first learned how to read it. But Manga is not text with accompanying illustration; it is rather a seamless fusion of text and image. The experience of reading manga is unique.
Scott McCloud tells us that the face of a cartoon character can pull us forcefully into the story through a technique he calls “the masking effect” that was “virtually a national style” in Japan. Like a mask, the cartoon face is both realistic and simplified—iconic—allowing for strong reader identification. When iconic characters are combined with realistic backgrounds, “this combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world (43).” Expressionism is another feature that McCloud sees as particularly Japanese (113). Mangaka have developed a visual vocabulary that allows them, with a few well-chosen lines, to express every emotion from giddy happiness to profound anguish.
Shōjo is, to me, the most challenging and immersive of the manga subgenres. The mangaka Sakumi Yoshimo, discussing shōjo in its “golden age”—the 1970s—says that the only people who read it then were women and children. “[T]he editors were all males, and because they didn’t understand what women like and dislike, they never meddled… [M]anga writers were able to do exactly as they pleased…. It was very carefree. It’s something males couldn’t understand, and so they didn’t bother (115).”
Allowed to develop freely, shōjo became technically complex. Unlike that in most Western comics, the lay-out in shōjo can change remarkably from page to page; even the drawing style can change. Time as experienced in reading shōjo is always variable. Staccato rectangular panels can whisk the reader through an action sequence much the way they do in boys’ comics, but then highly decorative collages can slow or stop the reader. Panels can be superimposed or wrapped around each other. Time can wind back on itself, presenting flash-backs that can occur simultaneously with forward motion. Time can enter a state of “ongoingness” that is like no time at all. To borrow a felicitous phrase from Marshall McLuhan, one doesn’t read shōjo so much as take a bath in it.
But it was not merely the technical features of shōjo that attracted me. I was also drawn to the subject matter. For those who are unacquainted with shōjo, the genre can appear, at first impression, to be an unending series of stories about saucer-eyed girls in short skirts. If one explores the genre, however, one finds multifaceted stories of enormous psychological depth.
Bruce Grenville, the curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery, presented KRAZY! (2008), a show that displayed many of the classic images of Japanese visual popular culture. He comments that these figures “aren’t simply kawaii (cute) characters but are complex protagonists, active agents of change who undermine and reveal the biases of an adult world that has betrayed them (257).” The majority of the protagonists in shōjo are adolescents. The mangaka give them ages—fourteen to sixteen—but the numbers don’t matter because they live in a mythic age. Not yet completed, not yet constrained by the adult world, they act in a liminal, magical realm of open possibility.
I have been called “a novelist of adolescence.” All of my novels are either about adolescents or about young adults who are forced to confront unfinished business from their adolescence. I have written two bildungsromane. Gloria (1999) follows the life of a girl, Gloria Cotter, from childhood to twenty-one. The four volume series Difficulty at the Beginning (2005-06) follows the life of a boy, John Dupre, from sixteen to twenty-eight. The part of me that writes fiction remains perpetually adolescent, and I respond immediately to the adolescent characters in shōjo.
Then, finally, there is the treatment of gender in shōjo. The critic Yukari Fujimoto notes that “Shōjo Manga employ various methods to strip away aspects of normative sexuality and its accompanying roles one by one, and piece together different elements, thereby creating divergent models of sex and sex-roles, and the images that accompany these new models.” We find girls dressed as boys and boys dressed as girls, characters of mutable gender who switch back and forth, characters who are transgendered through accident or choice, beautiful adolescents who, at first glance, appear to be girls but are actually boys. Gender is not an impediment to romance. Boys can fall in love with each other, girls can fall in love with each other, a girl dressed as a boy can fall in love with a boy dressed as a girl. We are is a state of what Fujimoto calls “gender anarchy” (76).
Gender has always been a central preoccupation of mine in my fiction. My first novel, Two Strand River (1976) bears a remarkable resemblance to shōjo. It takes place in a fantasy world in which anything can happen. My two protagonists are gender-switched, and my conscious purpose was to undermine normative sexuality. In later books I moved from fantasy into mainstream realism. Gloria is, among many other things, a study of the way gender was constructed in America in the 1950s. The Difficulty at the Beginning quartet tells the story of a boy who feels that he is both a boy and a girl, or halfway between a boy and a girl, or neither a boy nor a girl. It is no wonder that I felt a powerful shock of recognition when I first began reading shōjo.
Fictional worlds can construct cultural space in which people can resist, can begin to reimagine their lives. Shōjo tends to undermine the gender norms of the world as it is currently constituted and to celebrate any effort to produce gender in ways that do not conform to existing norms. The editors of an issue of the U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal devoted entirely to shōjo, conclude by telling us that “Shōjo Manga are constantly changing. They are not just ‘for and about girls’ anymore. Audiences can be male, female, or androgynous, and the characters can be children, boys, ghosts, older women, cyborgs, or even cats! We could say that shōjo is a fluid term, at times simply representing ‘otherness.’… [T]he shōjo may find herself in places we least expect. Shōjo manga reflect the sensitive minds of those who feel alienated in gendered society (Aoyama, Dollase and Kan 8).”
If manga in general, and shōjo in particular, can create a cultural space of resistance, are readers finding it and using it? As interesting as it is to read accounts of the impact of manga on Japanese culture, I am much more interested in its impact on North American culture—that is, after all, where I live, and, like most Western manga fans, I don’t read Japanese. Some of the most interesting and challenging art arises from the impact of alien cultures, as each understands—and creatively misunderstands—the other. The one culture does not simply reproduce what is in the other; something new is created, a hybrid. As Bakhtin tells us, “Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched (7).”
It feels inevitable to me that I would want to write not only about manga but also to write some of my own stories in the manga tradition. Bakhtin again: “The powerful deep currents of culture (especially the lower, popular ones) which actually determine the creativity of writers, remain undisclosed, and sometimes researchers are completely unaware of them (3).” My writing about manga, and in the manga genre, is a record of my efforts to become aware of those powerful deep currents.
Aoyama, Tomoko; Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase and Satoko Kan. “Shōjo Manga: Past, Present, and Future—An Introduction.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, Number 38, 2010.
Bakhtin, M. M.; Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, eds. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Fujimoto, Yukari. “Transgender: Female Hermaphrodites and Male Androgynes.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, Number 27, 2004.
Grenville, Bruce. KRAZY!: the Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver Art Gallery, University of California Press, 2008.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Takanashi, Mitsuba. Crimson Hero. San Francisco: VIZ Media, 2002-2011, ongoing.
Thorn, Matt. “What Japanese Girls Do With Manga, and Why,” Paper Delivered at the Japan Anthropology Workshop, University of Melbourne, Australia, July 10, 1997.
Yoshino, Sakumi. “An Interview with Sakumi Yoshino.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, Number 38, 2010.
©Keith Maillard, 2011